Redistricting panel member resigns over disclosure rules

State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli speaks to the Watertown Daily Staff on Friday in Watertown.

The top Senate Republican will appoint a new member to the state’s Independent Redistricting Commission in the coming weeks after one of its 10 commissioners resigned over financial disclosure requirements included in the 2021-22 budget.

George Winner, a Republican former senator and assemblyman who represented parts of the Finger Lakes for 30 years, resigned May 5 from the commission tasked with drawing elective lines after language in the 2021-22 state budget delegates commissioners as legislative employees, which requires them to publicly disclose their financial records.

Winner was initially told because the commission was independent from the Legislature, the 10-member group would not be subject to section 73-A of state Public Officers Law, which mandates legislative employees file an annual statement of financial disclosure with the legislative ethics commission.

“When we were initially appointed, we were assured that wasn’t going to be applicable,” Winner said Friday. “This was the opposite of what we were assured the rules were going to be when we started. I don’t have anything to hide, but the principle of the thing, it’s just not right.”

The language was included in the 2021-22 state budget April 7, which shocked Winner, a practicing attorney in Elmira. The former state lawmaker willingly filled out financial disclosure forms during his tenure in the Legislature.

“I don’t know what that has to do with the redistricting commission,” he said. “To me, it’s just personal. It’s an extraordinary invasion of privacy — it’s another example of government run amuck.”

Winner did not resign until nearly a month after the budget’s passage to research if the provision could be changed, but said no state official could provide a solid reason why the disclosure was necessary for commissioners.

“I have three daughters who love me and think I’m rich — I can’t have them find out the truth,” Winner joked, but he then cited the state Constitution.

“The commission is supposed to be independent from the Legislature,” he added. “God bless people are willing to do it, but by the principle, I said this is not anybody’s business. I don’t know what my financial disclosure form has to do with whether Elmira and Corning are in the same district, but I’m just not going to do that.”

Former Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican who served in the leadership position from 2019 to June 2020, appointed Winner before Senate Minority Leader Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, assumed the role last year.

Ortt is tasked with appointing Winner’s replacement within 30 days of his resignation, or within the next two weeks.

“Our conference has long supported getting the redistricting commission up and running, and I’m glad they finally have access to their long overdue funding,” Ortt said in a statement Friday. “It’s my plan to fill this vacancy as expeditiously as possible so the commission can continue their critical work on behalf of all New Yorkers.”

The Independent Redistricting Commission has access to millions of dollars in legislated funding for the first time since its creation after the state Comptroller’s Office created the entity this week.

But the commission cannot hire or pay employees until the comptroller finalizes the group’s payroll.

The Comptroller’s Office created the agency this week following pressure from the League of Women Voters of New York State and 22 organizations, who sent a letter to Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli on May 11 to prioritize the commission.

“We have been created by the state — we have access to money,” co-executive director Doug Breakell said during a commission meeting Friday. “There’s one component that is just being worked out and we anticipate it’s going to happen very soon where we can hire employees.”

Co-executive Directors Breakell and Karen Blatt are expected to be on the payroll in the coming days, or by the commission’s next meeting at 10 a.m. Friday.

Breakell and Blatt have worked for hours, over several months, without pay as the group waited to gain access to funding.

The directors are slated to be paid $145,000 annually. Each member of the Independent Redistricting Commission will receive an annual salary of $25,000.

Representatives of the comptroller’s office would not say Friday when they last discussed the commission’s payroll with legislative staff, what details have delayed its creation or when it will be finalized.

“We continue to provide any necessary assistance to the Legislature to set up the commission’s payroll and will promptly process payroll requests once submitted,” said Jennifer Freeman, a spokeswoman with the Comptroller’s Office.

Assembly staff are providing human resource assistance as the comptroller and state agencies work to finalize the commission’s payroll, said Mike Murphy, a spokesman with the Senate Majority conference. Senate staff provide the commission with technical support.

Representatives of the comptroller’s office referred questions to the Legislature and the state Department of State. Last year, the state Department initially assisted with the formation of the group, but is no longer involved with the independent commission, department spokeswoman Mercedes Padilla said.

“It’s an independent body, it doesn’t belong to any state agency,” she said Friday.

Representatives of the Assembly Majority conference did not return requests for comment.

Representatives of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office have repeatedly referred questions about the Independent Redistricting Commission to legislative leaders.

Commissioners and co-executive directors have met since September to get access to funding to start work to redraw the state Senate, Assembly and congressional district lines, which is done every decade after completion of the U.S. Census.

Commissioners and organizations have expressed increasing frustration as time runs short to redraw fair elective districts and the state is set to lose one congressional seat. The commission’s first maps must be publicized by Sept. 15 and submitted to the Legislature by January 2022. The new state lines are supposed to be in place for the 2022 elections.

Until the 2014 change, state lawmakers drew district maps requiring passage in both houses of the Legislature.

Commissioners plan to adopt bylaws and budget for the $4 million at their meeting next week.

The group discussed Friday the critical need for a website as the co-executive directors explore options. Commissioners can make recommendations or ideas for the site, and requested the group explores several vendors before making a selection.

The site will depend on the cost determined in the commission’s budget, and must go live imminently, commissioners said.

Job listings for the commission’s public engagement director, a public engagement director assistant, a data manager and administrative assistant were expected to be posted within the next few days on several employment websites, Breakell said.

The listings do not have a set salary, nor indicate the jobs are legislative positions. Applicants will be informed of the details during the interview process.

Commissioners plan to hold a round of 18 preliminary hearings across the state for public input on the redistricting process in July. The group hoped to begin the meetings next month, but have been delayed while state officials iron out logistics creating the entity.

Others cited the need to wait until after the primary for New York City’s mayoral race in June 22.

“Let’s just remember, it’s an awfully big state last year — 20 million-plus, as far as the census is concerned,” Commissioner Jack Martins, a former Republican senator from Long Island’s 7th District, said in Friday’s meeting. “We shouldn’t hold everything up because there happens to be a primary in New York City.

“I’m all in favor of going forward, but I’m really concerned of putting together a schedule and dates on a calendar when we don’t have a website, we don’t have an office, we don’t have ability to host those hearings until we have some more definitive items in place that allow us to actually post these hearings,” Martins added. “We’re running out of time. Whether we do it in June or July, let’s just do it as quickly as possible. Too soon is not too soon, or not soon enough.”

Hearings will take place at an undetermined date, time and location in Albany, Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, White Plains, Bronx County, Kings County, New York County, Queens County, Richmond County, Nassau County, Suffolk County and in the North Country and the Southern Tier.

Constitutionally mandated hearings will be held in September after the commission releases its drafted maps with at least 30 days’ notice.

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